What This Debate Will Tell Us About the Candidates

If you were frustrated by the first Democratic presidential debate, in which 20 candidates were split over two nights and averaged about nine minutes each to address questions, there is another round of the same thing coming up on Tuesday and Wednesday night.

From Detroit, the first night will include Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, and five other candidates that no one is paying attention to. The second round will feature Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, Julian Castro and another five that aren’t garnering much (if any) attention.

The debate is being broadcast by CNN and moderators include Dana Bash, Don Lemon, and Jake Tapper. Here’s some good news: they will not ask candidates to provide one-word answers or raise their hands for responses.

The other bit of good news is that this will be the last Democratic debate that will be structured this way. The next one will take place in mid-September. But the rules developed by the Democratic National Committee for who is included will change. Candidates will have to meet two criteria in order to participate.

  1. Receive two percent or more support in at least four polls, and
  2. Show they have received donations from at least 130,000 unique donors, plus at least 400 unique donors in at least 20 states.

It is impossible to predict who will meet the fundraising criteria. But polling tells us who might not make the cut. According to the current national average of polls at RealClearPolitics, the following candidates are at or above two percent.

  • Biden
  • Sanders
  • Warren
  • Harris
  • Buttigieg
  • O’Rourke
  • Yang

Morning Consult, which polls over 5,000 registered voters on a daily basis, indicates that Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar would make the cut, but Yang wouldn’t. So unless something rather dramatic changes soon, the next debate will include ten candidates or less. Those who don’t make the cut might decide to stay in the race, but it is more likely that most of them will drop out.

While coverage of this week’s debate will focus on the front-runners, it is make-or-break time for the 10-plus candidates whose presidential aspirations are on the line. Their task will be to find some way to stand out that doesn’t make them look desperate. I suspect that most of them won’t be able to pull that off, and their desperation will color the tone of the debate.

Going into this round, the front-runners will need to be aware that each of them has a target on their back, coming primarily from those who see themselves competing for the same lane. That explains why, even prior to this debate, Tulsi Gabbard singled out Kamala Harris, claiming that she is not qualified to be commander-in-chief. We’ll see more of that kind of thing from the bottom tier than we did in the previous debate.

Since these debates tend to be judged based on how candidates handle themselves, there will be two things to watch for on Tuesday and Wednesday night. First of all, can any of the bottom tier pull off what Harris did last round, when she vaulted herself into contention by challenging Biden’s position on busing? Secondly, keep an eye on how the frontrunners handle themselves when they are challenged. For example, if Gabbard continues to focus on Harris, how does the latter respond? Biden didn’t help himself at all when he got ruffled by Harris during the last debate.

For political junkies who want to focus on the issues, this might seem like a trivial way to analyze the candidates. But whoever becomes the nominee will eventually face Donald Trump in debates, and we know that there will be no floor to his debased attacks. Whatever happens in this debate will be trivial compared to what’s coming.

It is also true that being president means living under a microscope with daily challenges that would test anyone’s mettle. So how candidates handle themselves under pressure can tell us something important about them—even beyond their position on issues.

Support the Washington Monthly and get a FREE subscription

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.